This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The last long goodbye

I am against capital punishment under most circumstances, but I have had to take a look at the topic again...
With all the talk of executions performedbotchedplanned or demanded, maybe we could take a look at the methods involved? And try and make some sort of choice?
Before beginning: I suppose we might as well leave out the options like necklacing, theguillotine, the garotte, or the electric drill (the favourite method today in Iraq's civil war), no matter how appropriate they might appear as desirable for certain individuals.
So, what are we left with?
Hanging: The rope is still touted in many countries as the quickest, most painless method to execute someone, using a long drop calculated according to the condemned person's weight. This is because it allegedly breaks the neck, leading to instant death, or vasovagal reflex which causes rapid unconsciousness and death. But if it is botched, with a too short drop, it can cause slow and agonising strangulation. And if the drop is too long it can literally rip the person's head off.
Here is a description of slow strangulation of a prisoner where the drop was inadequate
at San Quentin in California. Clinton Duffy who was the warden there from 1942 to 1954 described the execution of Major Raymond Lisemba on May 9, 1942 as follows: "The man hit bottom and I observed that he was fighting by pulling on the straps, wheezing, whistling, trying to get air, that blood was oozing through the black cap. I observed also that he urinated, defecated, and droppings fell on the floor, and the stench was terrible". (This is not abnormal in death by slow hanging as the person slowly strangles). "I also saw witnesses pass out and have to be carried from the witness room. Some of them threw up."
It took ten minutes for the condemned man to die. When he was taken down and the cap removed, "big hunks of flesh were torn off" the side of his face where the noose had been, "his eyes were popped," and his tongue was "swollen and hanging from his mouth." His face had turned purple
Normally, hanging causes death like this:
Hanging with no or insufficient drop typically produces death by strangulation (asphyxia) due to the weight of the person's body pulling down on the noose, causing it to tighten and constrict the trachea (air passage) and applying pressure to the large blood vessels in the neck. The condemned person usually struggles for some time after suspension, due to the physical pain caused by the noose. It can take up to 3 minutes for the person to lapse into unconsciousness in this form of hanging, as the rope occludes the jugular veins and carotid arteries but the vertebrae protects the vertebral and spinal arteries which also supply blood to the brain. However, these arteries go outside the fourth vertebrae instead of inside it, which subjects them to blockage if the pressure on the neck is high enough (usually about 40-50 lbs. for a normal person) and this can cause the loss of consciousness in less than 15 seconds. Death can also come from sudden stoppage of the heart due to pressure on the carotid arteries which can cause a lethal carotid sinus reflex or from Vagal reflex (pressure on the Vagal nerve) which causes unconsciousness very quickly. This form of hanging is typical in suicides and it quite normal for the inquest to find that the victim died from heart failure rather than strangulation.
After suspension the face may become engorged and cyanosed (turned blue through lack of oxygen). The tongue may protrude and rippling movements of the body and limbs may occur which are usually attributed to nervous and muscular reflexes. There exist many pictures of actual hangings, both judicial and suicide, which seem to show that the person died quickly and quite peacefully.
In death, the body typically shows marks of suspension, e.g., bruising and rope marks on the neck and in some cases traces of urine, semen and feces. Male prisoners sometimes have penile erections and even ejaculate while hanging.
This form of asphyxial death is known, medically as anoxia, as the brain becomes starved of oxygen. Whole body death results usually within less than 20 minutes.

Where a measured drop is used, it takes between a quarter and a third of a second for a person to reach the end of the rope after the trap opens. The force produced by the prisoner's body weight multiplied by the length of fall and the force of gravity, coupled with the position of the knot is designed to cause a virtually instant fracture-dislocation of the neck which leads to death by comatose asphyxia. Typically brain death will occur in around 3-6 minutes and whole body death within 5-15 minutes.
The cause of death is still asphyxia but the condemned person is deeply unconscious at the time due to dislocation of the cervical vertebrae and the crushing or separation of the spinal cord. The face may come engorged and then cyanosed and the tongue may protrude. Some slight movements of the limbs and body may occasionally occur and are attributed to spinal reflexes. The prisoner may urinate and/or defecate as their muscles relax. The heart can continue to beat for as long as 25 minutes after the drop

Although it's generally pretended that the executed person feels no pain in hanging, according to Harold Hillman, a British physiologist who has studied executions, "the dangling person probably feels cervical pain, and suffers from an acute headache, as a result of the rope closing off the veins of the neck. It had been generally assumed that fracture-dislocation of the neck causes instantaneous loss of sensation. Sensory pathways from below the neck are ruptured, but the sensory signals from the skin above the noose and from the trigeminal nerve may continue to reach the brain until hypoxia blocks them". 
Translation: Yes, he does, in all but a tiny fraction of cases. Agonisingly so. In the opinion of Dr. Cornelius Rosse, the chairman of the Department of Anatomy at the University of Washington School of Medicine, the belief that fracture of the spinal cord causes instantaneous death is wrong in all but a small fraction of cases.
The Gas Chamber: Apart from the Nazi Zyklon B chambers in Auschwitz, this is a uniquely American - and uniquely sadistic - method. Also it makes the prisoner actively complicit in his own execution since his breathing makes him inhale the gas fumes. Not to speak of the expense of maintaining a meticulously hermetically sealed gas chamber with some means of removing the fumes afterwards and avoiding danger to everyone present at the execution.
Prisoners are advised to take deep breaths after the gas is released as this will considerably shorten their suffering. Easy for the Warden to say, no doubt, but much harder for the prisoner to intentionally inhale the gas designed to kill them, even if they accept the logic of the advice they are given.
A typical witnesses' view of gassing is as follows "At first there is evidence of extreme horror, pain and strangling. The eyes pop, the skin turns purple and the prisoner begins to drool."
In medical terms, victims of cyanide gas die from hypoxia, which means the cut-off of oxygen to the brain. The initial result of this is spasms, as in an epileptic seizure. Because of the straps, however, involuntary body movements are restrained. Seconds after the prisoner first inhales, he/she will feel himself unable to breathe, but will not lose consciousness immediately. "The person is unquestionably experiencing pain and extreme anxiety," according to Dr. Richard Traystman of John Hopkins University. "The pain begins immediately and is felt in the arms, shoulders, back, and chest. The sensation is similar to the pain felt by a person during a heart attack, where essentially the heart is being deprived of oxygen." "We would not use asphyxiation, by cyanide gas or by any other substance, in our laboratory to kill animals that have been used in experiments."

It's not exactly surprising that gassing is no longer a method of choice, though it remains on the books.
Lethal Injection: The world's favourite method, at least officially, right now. Sounds excellent in theory, doesn't it? The condemned person just "goes to sleep and never wakes up again". Well, as the case of Mr Angel Nieves Diaz has shown, lethal injection can get screwed up, and screwed up badly, so much so that Jeb Bush has put lethal injection executions on hold. When a Bush does something like that, you know it's not just a screw-up, it's a huge, enormous screw up showing an incredible level of incompetence. They missed the vein
Opponents of lethal injection believe that it is not actually humane as practiced in the United States. Opponents argue that the thiopental is an ultra-short acting barbiturate that may wear off (anesthesia awareness) and lead to consciousness and an excruciatingly painful death wherein the inmate is unable to express their pain because they have been rendered paralyzed by the paralytic agent.(Wikipedia)
Yet there is a "controversy" on whether this method is too humane. I guess those people want something like the axe.
Execution by lethal injection takes much longer from start to finish than any other method, typically 30-45 minutes depending on the execution protocol and ease or otherwise of locating a vein. In the U.K., a hanging took around 15 seconds to carry out in the later part of the 20th century. For the majority of this time, the condemned person is fully aware of what is happening to them and able to experience their execution. They know that they will be dead at the end of it and the fear of suffering (particularly in front of an audience) and of the unknown is strong in most of us. It is difficult to see, therefore, how it can be considered more humane, as the prisoner is subjected to far more mental anguish over a longer period.
A personal observation, incidentally: for an excellent cinematic depiction of the trauma a lethal injection prisoner goes through, watch the Sharon Stone movie Last Dance.
The Electric Chair: Here is what happens to someone who is executed by this method:
After electrocution, the body temperature rises to about 138 degrees F and is initially too hot to touch. Heating destroys the body's proteins and "bakes" the organs.
Physical reactions include heaving chest, gurgles, foaming at the mouth, bloody sweat, burning of the hair and skin, and release of urine and faeces.
The body has to be allowed to cool before an autopsy can be performed.
According to Robert H. Kirschner, the deputy chief medical examiner of Cook County,Illinois, "The brain appears cooked in most cases."

According to Judge Brennan, the prisoner's eyeballs sometimes pop out and rest on his cheeks. The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool. The body turns bright red as its temperature rises, and the prisoner's flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking. Sometimes the prisoner catches on fire, particularly if he perspires excessively. Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound like bacon frying, and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh permeates the chamber.
Electrocution, in fact, is the most easily and spectacularly botched method of all. Famous instances such as
on May 4, 1990, in the case of Jesse Joseph Tafero in Florida. According to witnesses, when the executioner flipped the switch, flames and smoke came out  from around the helmet and mask on Tafero's head. Twelve inch blue and orange flames sprouted from both sides of the mask. The power was stopped, and Tafero took several deep breaths. The superintendent ordered the executioner to halt the current, then try it again. And again.  The helmet used artificial sponge (which was initially blamed for the problem) because it is uniformly conductive as it has a uniform thickness.  The subsequent enquiry found that the solder joint on the head electrode had separated causing a major high resistance connection.  This was proved in court by the two burns on Mr. Tafaro'shead.  The electrodes had not been checked but this was “hushed up” by the state. According to the state prison medical director, Frank Kligo, who attended Tafero’sexecution, it was "less than aesthetically attractive."
Another electrocution in Florida went seriously wrong in 1997 when Pedro Medina was executed on March 25th. Witnesses saw a blue and orange flame shoot 6-10 inches out of the helmet covering Medina's head. It burned for about 10 seconds, filling the chamber with acrid smoke and the smell of burning flesh.
An investigation by prison officials blamed the flare-up on a corroded brass screen used in the helmet.
Michael Morse and Jay Wiechart, both experienced in electric chair design and operation, blamed the malfunction on a dry sponge used in conjunction with a wet sponge in the helmet

Although it is not considered, by the US legal system, cruel and unusual punishment, it's not that much of a surprise that it's hardly used.
Shooting: Ah, my personal favourite. I'd have loved to be executed this way, but there is another alternative I'll talk about right at the end of this post...something better. Anyway, this is probably, all told, the most actually used method worldwide.
Shooting can be carried out in two ways: in the first, by a single executioner who fires from short range at the back of the head or neck as is the case in China. The intention of shooting at short range is to destroy the vital centres of the medulla (lower brain stem). Although, of course, denigrated in propaganda terms because of its use by China (I do agree that forcing the condemned person's family to pay for the bullet is unnecessarily sadistic), it is actually far less messy and probably infinitely more humane than the other method, the firing squadFiring squad executions are much more famous but have sharply declined in popularity these days because of the difficulty of gathering enough willing individuals and finding a place to carry out the execution without risking other peoples' lives by stray bullets. (Thailand used to use a hybrid method, a single executioner firing a machine gun, as shown here.)
The firing squad is the favourite military method of execution (photo here), but many countries continue to use it (all, in fact, that continue to shoot condemned prisoners, except China and Uzbekistan) on civilians.  
The traditional firing squad is made up of 3 to 6 shooters per prisoner who stand or kneel opposite the condemned who is usually tied to a chair or to a stake. Normally the shooters aim at the chest, since this is easier to hit than the head. A firing squad aiming at the head produces the same type of wounds as those produced by a single bullet, but bullets fired at the chest rupture the heart, large blood vessels, and lungs so that the condemned person dies of haemorrhage and shock, not a destruction of the brainstem as in the Chinese method. It was not unusual in earlier times for the officer in charge of the firing squad to have to give the prisoner a "coup de grace" - a pistol shot to the head to finish them off after the initial volley failed to kill them, and this is still standard in Vietnam. Persons hit by bullets feel as if they have been punched - pain comes later if the victim survives long enough to feel it. 
One of the myths surrounding firing squad members is that there is one rifle handed out at random which is loaded with a blank bullet, so each individual member (typically a volunteer) can tell himself he did not fire the fatal shot. In reality, the recoil produced by a blank is so much less any experienced rifleman ought to be able to tell the difference unless he is wilfully deluding himself.
When all goes well, shooting can provide a quick death but there are many recorded instances of it failing to kill the condemned person immediately. There are also instances of people surviving their execution. Probably, one of the problems of the firing squad is that it is, typically, composed of volunteers rather than professional executioners and it is a task that many people would not find easy to perform when the time comes to actually squeeze the trigger (though they're always  eager enough to volunteer when it comes to that). While shooting is always a gruesome and bloody death, Americans who have a lifetime of hunting behind them should be able to bear up better (my two cents here).
OK, so which would you prefer? One for the people you would execute, and one for yourown execution? Truth time I said, for myself, I have a better method than shooting.
And that is extreme sexual exhaustion. 

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